Acclaimed director Richard Linklater again keeps it real
LAST FLAG FLYING
★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5
Cast: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater makes weird sequels. His Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy came out in 1995, 2004 and 2013. (Is it over? Ask again in 2022.) In 1993 he made Dazed and Confused, set in 1976 on the last day of high school; then last year he delivered Everybody Wants Some!!, which takes place in 1980 on the August weekend before the start of university.
His newest, Last Flag Flying, is a sort-of sequel to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, which was released in 1973 and won Jack Nicholson the best-actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, plus an Oscar nomination. That one was set during the Vietnam War, and featured a young soldier on his way to military prison. Last Flag Flying picks up 30 years later. Both are based on books by Darryl Ponicsan, and while the characters aren’t the same, they’re clearly the same types.
Bryan Cranston is the Nicholson sort, now named Sal Nealon and running a bar. Business isn’t great, but at least he’s got a place to drink, and to crash afterward. One day, in walks Larry (Doc) Shepherd (Steve Carell), who served with him in ’Nam and then served time for some undefined misdemeanour.
The two men then seek out another veteran, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who has set aside his brawling ways and become a preacher. The trio thus assembled, Doc reveals why he brought them together — his son has just been killed while serving in the Iraq War, and he’d like them to attend the funeral.
This would seem to be an easy assignment, but nothing in war or its aftermath is ever easy. They arrive at an air force hangar to two very different narratives of the young Marine’s death — one from his commanding officer, a real paper-pusher named Wilits (Yul Vazquez) another from Lance Cpl. Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) who was there, and now sags under the weight of survivor’s guilt.
In this scene the structure of the older men’s friendship becomes clear. Sal is the devil on Doc’s left shoulder, Richard the angel on his right. “We pay for what we say,” Richard aphorizes at one point. To which Sal replies brusquely: “Put it on my tab.”
Last Flag Flying continues a recent trend in American cinema of low-key, surprisingly mature war movies that manage patriotism without jingoism (see Thank You for Your Service, Meagan Leavey and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). It knows when things are best kept vague, and when to employ specifics.
For instance, the reasons for Doc’s incarceration are revealed sparingly, and only as required. This is clearly one of those wartime memories that is seldom spoken of by its participants.
There’s a wonderful, sometimes silent shorthand among the characters, particularly Carell’s. Every time I see him putting on the bluster in a largerthan-life performance, I’m convinced that’s actually him. Then he packs it all away again to play an introvert like Doc, and damned if that doesn’t feel like the real thing, too.
Linklater handles the material adroitly, with a minimal score that could be dialed back even further — it feels intrusive whenever the music swells. But that’s literally in the background. What remains after the credits roll is a profound meditation on warfare, and the nexus of its physical reality and its psychological components. Is honour as real a thing as death? Doc isn’t sure. Maybe no one can be.